Nigeria, Auba, and Salah (?!): African football’s biggest letdowns of the season

Nigeria’s World Cup miss, Aubameyang’s Arsenal exit, Salah’s late struggles: African football’s biggest letdowns of the season.

As the curtain falls on the 2021-22 campaign for Africa’s biggest football stars and teams, ESPN picks out the biggest seven disappointments of the year.

No hope for Nigeria’s Super Eagles?

In the space of a handful months around the turn of the year, it felt as though all of the progress made under Gernot Rohr had been frittered away and Nigeria were back to square one. The German coach wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea; the football was uninspiring, the personnel choices may have been questionable, and he struggled to get the best out of the Super Eagles’ array of attacking options.

However, he did have an enviable record of qualifying Nigeria to major tournaments, and helped them to the semifinal of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. For the Nigeria Football Federation to part ways with him on the eve of the pandemic-delayed 2021 AFCON edition — and only months before the World Cup qualifying playoffs — they surely had to have, up their sleeve, a definitive risk-free upgrade on Rohr.

What we got was the appointment of little-known Jose Peseiro, although he was only to take the reins after AFCON, which was overseen by former-head-coach-turned interim Augustine Eguavoen. After an outstanding group stage — impressive considering the absences of some key players — Nigeria were dumped out by Tunisia in the Round of 16, although by this point, Eguavoen had won over some elements of the NFF and was allowed to oversee the World Cup qualifying playoff against Ghana.

With Wilfred Ndidi injured, Nigeria weren’t able to asset themselves against their West African rivals — who themselves had acted swiftly after a miserable AFCON by swapping Milovan Rajevac with Otto Addo — and duly missed out on Qatar on away goals.

For only the second time since 1990, the World Cup will take place without Africa’s biggest footballing country. Only now does Peseiro adopt his role as Super Eagles head coach, and he will be the man to oversee this next international cycle, but surely the NFF should have allowed Rohr to finish the job he’d started until the end of 2022.

Sarr couldn’t save Watford

Obviously, the season was a disappointing one for all of relegated Watford‘s African stars, with the exceptions of Player of the Season Hassane Kamara and Emmanuel Dennis, as he proved that he can be a difference-maker in the top flight. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Senegal wideman Ismaila Sarr, who stuck with Watford after their drop into the second tier, following an impressive debut season in the Premier League in 2019-20. There were hopes that, older, wiser and with ample experience of English football under his belt, he could inspire the Hornets to safety this term, before securing his long-awaited move to a bigger club in the summer.

That now appears unlikely, with Sarr failing to score since November and appearing to lack any stomach for the fight as Watford succumbed to relegation. The winger was linked for a £35 million move to Liverpool as recently as January 2021, but it’s hard to see how the Hertfordshire side recoup anything like that kind of fee for him now.

At least Sarr did manage to clinch the Nations Cup with Senegal after arriving late in the camp following an injury setback at the tail end of 2021.

Auba’s acrimonious Arsenal exit

Ultimately, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can’t be included in this list due to the incredible turnaround he enjoyed during the second half of the campaign. With his non-involvement in Gabon‘s Nations Cup sojourn in Cameroon proving to be the nadir, Auba’s form improved dramatically after swapping Arsenal for Barcelona, taking immediately to LaLiga and ending the season with 11 goals in 17 league games for Xavi Hernandez’s side.

The striker got his wish to represent one of European football’s genuine giants, and should help Barca compete for major honours again next season. However, there’s no getting away from the bitter disappointment he was during the first half of the season, where an Arsenal career that had once promised so much ultimately ended in acrimony.

There were off-field indiscretions, a fall-out with Mikel Arteta, and only four Prem goals to show from the end of 2021, and when the Gunners truly needed their experienced skipper to step up and guide a young team through a tricky patch, he was nowhere to be seen. Auba reaffirmed his standing as an elite goalscorer while at the Emirates Stadium, and became the first African player to captain his side to the FA Cup, but the nature of his exit certainly detracts from his contribution in North London.

Pepe continued to underachieve

Sticking with the Arsenal theme, Nicolas Pepe has been such a disappointment throughout his Arsenal career that his most recent season of underachievement appears par for the course. The wideman should be in his prime at 27, and having previously played two full Premier League seasons, he could no longer hide behind excuses like he was just adapting to a new environment or of a new regime after Arteta replaced Unai Emery.

The Pepe who had a hand in 33 league goals — 22 goals and 11 assists — for Lille in 2018-19 is surely no more, but at least — some of us had hoped — the winger would improve upon the 10 goals he scored for the Gunners last season. Instead, Pepe regressed dramatically. He was afforded only five starts by Arteta, with the Spaniard making clear that he didn’t trust the ex-Angers man, and had a hand in just three Premier League goals during the course of the campaign. There can no longer be any hope that Pepe will achieve much at the Emirates Stadium, and it’s surely time for him to attempt to rebuild his career back in France.

Algeria failed to sustain form

How spectacularly things unravelled for Algeria in 2022. They ended 2021 with victory in the Arab Cup, and headed into the AFCON as reigning African champions having cultivated a record-breaking undefeated streak. This was a team that hadn’t lost a match since 2018, but their aura of invincibility quickly dissipated as they were held by Sierra Leone and then lost consecutive group stage games to Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Despite the bloated AFCON format, the reigning champions had failed to even reach the knockouts and, undefeated streak in tatters, they limped home early to lick their wounds. The World Cup playoff double-header against Cameroon represented an ideal opportunity for the Fennecs to bounce back and reaffirm their status as Africa’s top side. Yet that opportunity too ended in disaster, as, despite victory in Douala in the first leg, they were defeated by a controversial 124th-minute extra-time winner from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in the second leg in Blida.

Algeria went from being on course to become one of African football’s all-time great generations, to a one-tournament wonder, with success in 2019 now nestled amidst gross failure.

Salah’s season falls short

Mohamed Salah may appear like a bizarre inclusion in this list given he ended the season as the Premier League’s top scorer, won two domestic cups with Liverpool, and was named FWA Footballer of the Year. It’s true that the Egypt national team captain was one of the star performers in both the Premier League — where he scored 23 goals — and the Champions League, where no African player played more minutes than him, who had a hand in 10 goals as Liverpool reached the final. He was also responsible for two of the most glorious goals of the season — against Watford and Manchester City — in consecutive matches in the autumn, made the Africa Cup of Nations Team of the Tournament, and, after single-handedly eviscerating Manchester United at Old Trafford, appeared on course for the Ballon d’Or.

However, despite enjoying the kind of campaign that few players ever enjoy, it’s hard to avoid the sense — as the season drew to a close — that Salah’s year hasn’t reached the heights to which it once seemed destined. He missed out on the three biggest prizes available to him in 2022 — the AFCON, the Premier League, and the Champions League — while Egypt’s World Cup qualifying campaign also ended in the disappointment of that penalty shootout defeat by Senegal. Salah also failed to contribute in the most critical moments of the campaign; not taking a spotkick in the shootout defeat by Senegal in the AFCON final, blazing over — albeit while blinded by lasers — in the World Cup playoff deciders, and then found himself frustrated by Thibaut Courtois in the Champions League final.

The forward also lost steam in the Premier League run-in. He had a hand in 31 goals in 23 matches from the start of the season until mid-December, but scored just four in his last 20 matches of the campaign. Salah failed to score in any of the four major finals he contested, and while he still enjoyed — indisputably — a fine campaign, surely it could (and should) have been so much more.

Offseason signings in midfield

Frank Onyeka‘s struggles in the Premier League have gone under the radar due to Brenford’s own magnificent debut season in the top flight, but the Nigeria international ought to be considered one of the biggest transfer flops of last summer. The Bees got precious little for the £9m they spent to bring him to London from Midtjylland last summer, with Onyeka rarely looking Premier League quality and ending the year with just 12 starts to his name. Injuries doubtless played their part in the 24-year-old’s tricky campaign, and he must bounce back next term.

Another central midfielder who struggled to settle in England is Leicester City‘s Boubakary Soumare, even though Ndidi’s injury opened the door for him to establish himself in the Foxes midfield. Despite arriving for a £15m fee — on the back of several years of progress at Lille — he struggled with the intensity of the Premier League, prompting rumours that he’s been made available for transfer by the club already.

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